Searching For Nigeria's Musical Identity Post-Fela Kuti

Currently undergoing political instability, Toby L goes in search of real artists in today's Nigeria, and finds it slightly challenging.
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Currently undergoing political instability, Toby L goes in search of real artists in today's Nigeria, and finds it slightly challenging.
Jazzhole-Record-Shop

Toby L is a 29-year-old music industry professional living in London. He co-founded the Transgressive music company (working with and signing artists such as Foals, Two Door Cinema Club and Johnny Flynn), online music magazine and concert promotion company Rockfeedback, as well as music media film company, LoveLive.

We all know the indelible, international mark that Fela Kuti held both socially and musically in decades past; beyond his masterminding of Afrobeat, he was a revolutionary, setting an ethical (if not often met) vanguard for modern African politics.

However, beyond this, and his sons Femi and Seun, it gets a little trickier to navigate.

Whereas West African music from countries such as Mali has travelled impeccably well in recent years (and in spite of local turbulence of its own), Nigeria, the most populated country in Africa, has seemed comparatively insular. Conversely, the Nollywood TV and film scene is rapidly gaining momentum on an international scale.

As such, it felt apt to re-assess the state of affairs right now.

On the surface of things, an invitation to Nigeria right now seemed challenging; presently drawing regular reports for acts of terrorism – chiefly in the vein of Boko Haram’s bombings and kidnapping innocent civilians – it's a country undergoing significant and harrowing obstacles.

As it is, the courteous and thrilling invitation to Lagos – courtesy of the British Council, who (mysteriously) elected me as winner of Young Creative Entrepreneur of the year in 2013 – was one too enticing to turn down.

As a music obsessive, the opportunity to unearth either new talent or, at the very least, attain a deeper understanding of what creatively inspires this great nation posed a wondrous opportunity. Upon arrival, Lagos proved itself loud, dangerous, busy, exciting, random, boiling-hot, and, put concisely: amazing.

But on this perception of music being a compromised, diluted art in Lagos?

Speaking to local promoters, managers and labels, as well as the city’s main record shop haven, The Jazzhole, a shared challenge is that there are very few ties between the country’s heritage genres and artists, and the modern day pop acts, the latter often adopting familiar, hollow nuances from American or British acts.

Admittedly, such magpie attitudes and output are pretty common in most (if not all) music mainstreams – after all, how often do the chart acts of any given year or country endure or fade into ‘Oh, remember them?’ status? However, it seems that the projection of mainstream western music is starting to compromise the identity, and crucially, legacy of the local genres and styles that make Nigeria a musical power-house.

Makoko

My guide for the week – Emem, an entrepreneur who runs her own suite of companies under the One Management banner – was a joy to shadow. Firstly, she knows everyone. And secondly, she too has a vision: a way of offering a multitude of expert services in filming, artist management and creative, and tying it together within one organization. It was great to listen and learn from her across the week as we met with the contents of her address book, spanning record labels (Chocolate City), music TV channels (Trace, One Music), radio stations (Beat FM), and a host of sumptuously debauched night-spots (not least Bogobiri and Spice).

I relished all the meetings / scenarios in some form, not least a random conversation with a man only known as “Afrologic” at Freedom Park, one of the city’s preeminent outdoor spaces on Lagos Island, formerly a prison and now a multi-arts outdoor park space with restaurants and a bar.

A musician and record label boss, Afrologic told me about the music scene in Nigeria and how, since Fela Kuti’s death in the late nineties, the lineage of Afrobeat and politically charged music had all but collapsed locally, and that only internationally had his influence really developed into something greater.

It’s a shame, because – concurrently – Afrologic felt that the middle classes of Nigeria were all but wiped out by changes in government policy in the years preceding Fela’s death, meaning that artistically informed, socially conscious music was becoming ever-compromised in the popular music scene.

In its wake came what he depicted as ‘escapism music’ – sound-alike, diluted Western impressions, and characters singing pretty much exclusively about cash, nights out and girls.

Naturally, this is saddening to hear – the idea that such a potent, important musical force as Fela had become discarded as ‘parents’ music’ (a quote from a filmmaker I meet later in the week) by a younger generation, whose primary mainstream option is largely derivative by comparison. In many ways, as flagged, it mirrors pop music in all markets, although, at times on the trip, it did feel like digging for an ‘alternative’ music scene or counter culture in Lagos proved a challenge to seek out. It would be encouraging if some of Nigeria’s incredible, rich musical legacy and social-political authority could return in some form to the charts – we all know there’s certainly enough happening right now to talk about from an artist’s perspective. All that’s needed is courage, and a stage.

On that side of things, Adokiye Kyrian, the most notable artist making waves with a controversial response to Boko Harum’s activity, has made a somewhat extreme step: offering her own virginity in exchange for the return of the still-missing schoolgirls recently kidnapped by the terrorist organisation.

A shocking response, and one that has been greeted with skepticism among critics who deem it no more than a gravely shallow call for publicity for Kyrian. In either event, it is nonetheless commentary from an artist’s level – more than can be said about the powers that be. A major element of the public's fury surrounding the kidnapping revolved around the government’s apparent inability to shed light on the situation or provide any overt reassurance about efforts to retrieve the girls – effectively alluding to massive vulnerability in the country’s defenses.

Femi Kuti

Equally forlorn over the situation, of course, is Femi Kuti, son of the great Fela, whilst he is equally frustrated about the lack of younger artistic commentary (keep up to date with him on Twitter for a daily dialogue).

I have the great honour of meeting him a couple of times on the trip – at his legendary Shrine music venue on the mainland. Femi performs twice every week (when not touring internationally, of course) – every Thursday (free to the public), and every Sunday (the equivalent of a few pounds for entry).

The two sets I see this week are incredible, and my unmistakable highlights – three hour extravaganzas, featuring a huge, mind-melting cacophony of brass, dancing, beauteous singing, and most pertinently of all, spoken political diatribes between each song.

Femi and his sister Yeni, who both run the venue, mark two people  keeping the local music community and legacy of their iconic father thriving. They give hope to their city, making inspired social commentary, pulsing tunes and political insight an absolute mandatory, combined concern.

It’s an approach that more would be wise for younger musicians to study and emulate in their own form moving forwards. We all look back to move forward. Excitingly, it must be only a matter of time before the new voices will break through.

Now Read These...

Fela Kuti Interviewed: Part 1

Fela Kuti Interviewed: Part 2